“Flora, do we call security for the Ukraine flights?”
Not the best start on arriving for check-in at Heathrow. Flora reassures her colleague that the presence of G4S is no longer required for such a destination. Three hours of flight later and continent-sized fields emerge through the clouds, presumably Soviet planning rectangularly triumphant over England’s little patchwork quilts. Yellow-grey trees, familiar from elsewhere.
Hand luggage only, am in a few minutes amid the excitement of Ukrainian motorway etiquette in a taxi, 300 hyrvnia / £8 to the city centre. I gape through the window: a district of vast apartment blocks, assuredly preventing heaven from falling. A bridge over the expansive river Dnieper, and then neoclassical, brutalist, late 20th, and glass-and-steel structures. We arrive.
The first thing my host does is pour shots of Ukrainian cognac – ‘Welcome to Kiev!’ – and refill them. Another taxi, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, otherwise known as Euromaidan. Smaller than in the news clips and Winter on Fire film, built over a shopping mall. Photographs, displays. Riot shields, rusting. Leading to the poster-adorned victory column, a flight of pristine steps, one left unrepaired, smoothed battle-edges.
Up a hill closed to traffic. Shrines to the revolution’s martyrs, piles of construction hard hats – improvised sniper protection – and some makeshift balustrades. The cold and the silence. The setting sun washes all in light from the West.
Back downhill to a basement bar over the road. Ukrainian beer drains fast, a splendid porter in particular. Another bar later, we are in a warren-like canteen for soup, mayonnaise-laced salad, dumplings, and an original Ukrainian Chicken Kiev, which is pleasingly different to the world-renowned dish, but am too hammered to remember why.
Next day. A hillside monastery, overlooking the river. Into one of several churches, frescoes of ancient pallor, rescued in mid-hereafter fade. Behind thronged, robed, intonations is the grandeur, the grandeur. Rococo verdure, intricacies in gold, so bright as to need nearly no illumination despite reverential gloom. No one does majesty and spectacle like the Orthodox.
Down a cobbled street to underhill caves, where monks sealed themselves into seclusion. A chopstick candle is purchased, because there is no lighting. Within, footsteps vanish into slow, quiet darkness. A paperback-sized window for bread and water, for decades. Beneath glass, centuries-old shrouds shape a tiny figure, an emerged hand, desiccated to that of a child.
Kiev is revealed from the summit of the monastery’s bell tower. Trees, a park, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, and an island. I am informed that in the summer this is a conflagration of barbecues, picnics and river dips.
The metro: the deepest in the world, I am told, to which its escalators’ vertigo vistas attest. In recompense for depth, there is breadth, and width, with great halls, corridors, and platforms that even in crowded rush-hour seem still languid, half full. Lighting and decor by Stanley Kubrick, circa the Overlook Hotel. Hulking reliefs of joyous comrades, cameos from Lenin and Stalin, I photograph; they are soon to be removed.
A Georgian restaurant, the place to dine in Kiev right now, and a shot of clear, strong fluid: a horseradish spirit, piquantly refreshing, washed down with lager. Aubergine salad; decadent khachapuri bread soaked in cheese and sporting a fried egg; enormous Georgian dumplings that threaten to, and succeed in, soiling shirt, sweater, trouser, and face.
Back near Independence Square en route to elsewhere, three girls chatter ahead, returning from their own mini-protest, bearing Ukrainian and European Union flags. The two-year anniversary of the revolution is not far off.
Past a Soviet-demolished, recently-rebuilt cathedral, and a funicular railway taking us downhill through bleak, leafless trees to the riverfront, apparently a fixture of Kiev tourism. The seat covers by surely the same designer as the Piccadilly line of the London Underground.
The house of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, now a museum. My friend, fluent in Russian, asks when the last guided tour is, and is told in Russian that he wouldn’t understand it because he doesn’t speak Russian. We laugh at this delightfully Bulgakovian absurdity, and decide instead to head for the souvenir stalls outside before they close for the day.
Soviet gear abounds, though suspiciously new-looking, along with pottery, paintings, figurines, flags. A bag lady at the bottom of the hill guards a taped-off corner of pavement where she looks after a pack of street dogs – she is a Kiev institution, I am told.
Another basement bar, and 10 drinks for just over £6. This city is comparable with Prague in the mid-1990s: intriguingly different, highly affordable, and, at the moment, barely touched by any deluge of mass tourism. Get here as soon as you can.